It's time for this disputed Mona Lisa to emerge from the vault Da Vinci or not, artwork is for sale

August 03, 1993|By New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- If only Mona Lisa could watch the drama unfolding in New Jersey, she might smile.

Art historians have argued throughout this century about the authenticity of a near-look-alike version of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece -- a somewhat younger and thinner Mona, but pretty much the same woman -- sitting today somewhere in a New Jersey bank vault.

Now, the Vernon family -- the descendants of William Henry Vernon, noted friend of Ben Franklin, John Adams and Marie Antoinette of France -- is ready to cash in.

"Our real interest is getting it out, because it's a beautiful painting and should be hanging somewhere," says Roger Vernon, a former mayor of Madison, N.J., and one of eight heirs to the painting reputed to have been given to the Vernon patriarch by Marie Antoinette shortly before her beheading in 1793.

But, he notes, "Of course, we'd love the money."

"Anybody who's interested, we'd like to talk to them," adds his sister, Suzanne Vernon Swick.

The Vernons have no specific marketing plan, but they'd like Young Mona to stay in the United States. "The painting is part of American history, and the Vernon family is part of American history," Roger Vernon says. "It really should stay here."

It could sell for millions of dollars -- to someone who's convinced it really is a genuine da Vinci, painted several years before the better-known Mona.

There remains disagreement. "It is a canvas of da Vinci's period," said Robert Koenig, who organized the last exhibition of the work at the Montclair Art Museum more than 10 years ago.

"Some scholars think it is a copy by a contemporary," Mr. Koenig says. "Some think it is by da Vinci. It seems to be a left-handed painter, which da Vinci was."

The Vernons won't disclose Young Mona's exact location, for security reasons.

The undisputed Mona -- the one in the Louvre in Paris -- was stolen from that museum in 1911 and not recovered until two years later.

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